Ishihara left behind a mixed legacy

Successor will face problems unaddressed for years


Staff Writer

Tokyo is about to get its first new governor in almost 14 years, and whoever wins the Dec. 16 election will have to fill the shoes of Shintaro Ishihara, who leaves behind a legacy both positive and negative.

The 80-year-old Ishihara, who now heads Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), quit as governor in late October midway through his fourth term. Looking back on his tenure, analysts say he did a good job in the fields of infrastructure, economy and the environment, enhancing Tokyo’s standing as one of the world’s leading cities.

However, areas with a more direct impact on day-to-day life, such as welfare, medical care and education, stagnated during Ishihara’s reign.

He also walked away from the debt-ridden Shinginko Tokyo, a bank set up by the metropolitan government in 2004 to achieve his pet goal of supporting struggling small and medium-size companies in the capital. Another financial issue Ishihara left to his successor is the more than ¥1.4 billion in public donations he solicited to buy three of the disputed Senkaku Islands.

“If I assess Ishihara’s (work as Tokyo governor) from three aspects — as a politician, a manager and a diplomat — he did fairly well as a politician and a manager. But as a diplomat he failed, causing significant trouble, particularly in the relationship between Japan and China,” said Nobuo Sasaki, a political science professor at Chuo University.

As a politician, Ishihara put into action what he pledged, and as manager of Tokyo’s nearly ¥12 trillion budget, he succeeded in getting the metropolitan government into the black, Sasaki said.

The metropolitan government posted a record deficit of ¥106.8 billion in fiscal 1998, the year before Ishihara stepped into the governor’s office. But by 2005, the general account had a surplus of ¥54.3 billion.

Ishihara managed to restore the capital’s fiscal health by cutting the pay for all metropolitan employees by 4 percent, downsizing the workforce and selling government-owned property.

A former chief of the old Environment Agency, he took the initiative in green matters, regulating diesel engine emissions in the capital in 2003 to cut air pollution. In the nine years since the regulation was put in place, the amount of particulate matter in gas emissions declined by one-half, the metropolitan government claims.

Ishihara also played an important role in getting Haneda airport back into the business of international travel, something the metropolitan government had yearned for but was unable to push past the central government. Using his more than two decades of experience as a lawmaker and his personal connections, Ishihara reached out to the central government and advanced the plan.

The former novelist also resumed construction on the Gaikan Expressway between Nerima and Setagaya wards, and promoted urban development in areas such as Shiodome and Marunouchi.

“Ishihara succeeded in top-down-style management,” Sasaki said.

But when it comes to the diplomatic component, Sasaki slammed the hawkish Ishihara for damaging Japan.

“He often (made comments and actions) that could cause misunderstandings in Japan’s relations with the U.S. and China,” Sasaki said. “As the public face of the capital, he lacked dignity.”

Ishihara’s racist and sexist remarks often sparked controversy, and his action over the Senkaku islets ultimately triggered violent anti-Japan protests in China. Ishihara also jumped ship without taking responsibility for the ¥1.4 billion donated by the public to support his Senkaku plan. The metropolitan government plans to establish a fund to administer this money and hopes to use it for the Senkakus, but nothing concrete has been decided yet, according to a metropolitan official.

“Ishihara clearly became too involved with the issue,” said Satoru Osugi, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and an expert on urban government administration.

The bid to host the 2020 Olympics has also been left in limbo, and the next governor may reconsider the wisdom of pursuing the games. Tokyo led by Ishihara spent ¥14.9 billion trying to land the 2016 Olympics only to fail, in part because of a lack of interest among residents.

The negative side of Ishihara’s legacy includes the mess surrounding Shinginko Tokyo. The metropolitan government had to inject the troubled lender with ¥100 billion, and then another ¥40 billion, in taxpayer money to keep it from going under.

After downsizing its services, the bank has ended in the black in the last years. However, it still has about ¥6.6 billion in accumulated debts on its ledger.

Ishihara officially announced in 2010 that the Tsukiji fish market will move to the Toyosu area in Koto Ward. Ground is to be broken before the end of the current fiscal year in March and the new market is supposed to be open in fiscal 2014. However, the soil at the chosen site is contaminated with benzene, lead and other toxins, and the metropolitan government will have to spend a great deal of effort assuring Tokyoites of its safety, experts say.

Yasushi Aoyama, a vice governor during Ishihara’s first term and now a professor at Meiji University, said that while his former boss had numerous accomplishments in the areas he was interested in, the next in line will have to tackle issues that may not attract the public spotlight but are still necessary, such as welfare, education and jobs.

One crucial issue that must be addressed is Tokyo’s rapidly aging population, experts say.

According to metropolitan government data, the number of residents aged over 65 is expected to increase to 3.21 million, or about 24 percent of the population, in 2020, compared with 2.65 million in 2010. In 2020, about 840,000 seniors are expected to be living alone.

Sasaki of Chuo University said that during Ishihara’s tenure, a senior welfare allowance was abolished and free metropolitan bus tickets for the elderly were terminated.

“Ishihara went for rationalization on the pretext of fiscal reconstruction,” Sasaki said. Medical institutions have been merging under the name of “advancing medical treatment,” and due to such mergers, some people have to go longer distances to get to a hospital, he said. Three children’s hospitals, in Setagaya Ward, Hachioji and Kiyose, were closed down and the number of metropolitan-run hospitals was halved.

Ishihara did not achieve much in education, other than making public school teachers stand before the Hinomaru flag and sing “Kimigayo,” the national anthem, during entrance and graduation ceremonies.

Aoyama of Meiji University said the metropolitan government must also beef up support for employment issues to combat worsening poverty problems.

“I believe I am one of the people who values Ishihara’s governance, and I was on the inside during his tenure. But I say that for Tokyo’s sake, the Ishihara regime should not be continued (by his successor),” Aoyama said. “The next governor should be a totally different type from Ishihara.”

As official campaigning begins to elect Ishihara’s successor, Vice Gov. Naoki Inose is widely considered the strongest candidate. Other candidates include former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya and former science and technology policy minister Takashi Sasagawa.

“The campaign will likely turn on whether to continue in Ishihara’s footsteps or shift to a different direction,” Sasaki said. “But what they really should be discussing is their vision for Tokyo 10 years from now.”